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Children in Foster Care: Utilizing a New Metric

Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

Remember the parable about blind men describing an elephant? Each touched a different part of the elephant, so they came to different conclusions about what it looked like.

But what if there were more people involved – and they had to compare notes? The picture still wouldn’t be precise, but it would come closer.

I thought of this as I listened to Andy Barclay and Melissa Carter of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center explain the new metric they’d developed for The Imprint’s “Who Cares” database during a webinar on Nov. 19.

It can be useful, if it’s handled with care.

Barclay and Carter look at every child who was in nonrelative foster care – the homes of strangers, group homes and institutions – at some point over the course of a given year. They add up the number of days these children spent in foster care, then divide the total by the number of children living in the state. 

The family separation metric should be seen as a supplement to other measures, not a substitute. Used that way, it may bring us closer to a true picture of the elephant that is the child welfare system.

The result is an index comparing state performance on keeping time in foster care short. It is a useful refinement of a measure already in common use: taking the snapshot number of children in foster care on a given day and computing average length of stay.

But it also has limitations.

Every measure of foster care is incomplete; this one is no exception. In this case, the biggest problem is the potential to reward states in which many children churn through the system very quickly and penalize states that may be doing a good job of curbing needless removal.

Consider a hypothetical:

State X and state Y have the same number of children in foster care at the start of the year for the same number of days. They also have the same total child population. But over the course of the year state X takes away 200 children for an average of 10 days each, while state Y takes only 10 children but holds them an average of 200 days each.

Under Barclay and Carter’s index, these states look identical. But though they call their measure a family separation index, state X actually has separated many more families.

Just because separation is brief doesn’t mean it’s no big deal. 

Research shows even short stays do enormous damage, something reinforced by common sense. If total strangers suddenly come through the door, take a young child, sometimes literally kicking and screaming, from everyone he knows and loves, rushes him into a car and drops him off at the home of a total stranger, that’s an enormous trauma even if the child is returned home in a matter of days.

Meanwhile state Y might be doing a good job of curbing needless removals of children. Perhaps they really do take children only as a last resort. As a result, the children they take, and their families, may have more serious problems, and there may be legitimate reasons for a longer length of stay.

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This metric is also unable to quantify and distinguish some forms of relative connection that are superior to the care of strangers or group homes, but are still forms of foster care and still problematic in their own ways.

There is a movement among child welfare agencies to fudge the true nature of the extent to which they sunder families, by suggesting that if the child is placed with a relative, also known as kinship foster care, it’s not really foster care. 

But while kinship foster care is almost always the least harmful form of foster care, it is still foster care.

One need only listen to NBC reporter Mike Hixenbaugh’s podcast, Do No Harm, involving a family torn apart by a misdiagnosis of child abuse, to see how much havoc can be wrought within a family even when the children are placed with relatives.

But in measuring the number of days children are separated from their families, the “Family Separation” index fails to include as separation days that children spend in kinship foster care placements – even when such foster care placements are openly acknowledged by a child welfare agency and reported as such to the federal government.

Children in kinship foster care are included among the total child population, not the portion of the total child population that is separated from their families. In other words, they are counted as with their families because they have been placed in foster care with extended families. This contributes to the fiction that kinship foster care is not foster care, and “just as good” as leaving the family alone or providing services while the children remain in their own homes.

Then there are the children who move to the homes of relatives as a result of child welfare agency intervention but without court involvement. By definition no index can measure what Professor Josh Gupta-Kagan aptly calls “hidden foster care” – placements, usually with relatives, that are labeled voluntary but are often coerced, and are kept off the books by child welfare agencies.

But this needs to be kept in mind when data from the family separation index are interpreted.

On the webinar, Barclay and Carter seemed to express surprise that Virginia had both a low rate of entries into care and a low use of kinship foster care. But Gupta-Kagan cites estimates suggesting more than half of all placements in Virginia are hidden foster care placements – that is, never reported to the federal database that keeps track of such things. That could explain both the seemingly low rate of removal and the seemingly low rate of kinship placements.

Finally, this metric compares children separated from their families only to a state’s total child population. But the vast majority of children in foster care come from families that are poor. A state that has a relatively low rate of child poverty still may take a large proportion of poor children into foster care. This can be obscured if you compare only total child population. 

My organization also has an index that compares states. Because our primary concern is reducing not just time spent needlessly in foster care but reducing the number of children needlessly taken at all, the NCCPR Rate-of-Removal Index compares entries into foster care.

But because a comparison to total child population can hide the behavior of child welfare agencies in poor communities, we compare entries to both the total number of children in each state and the number of impoverished children in each state.

That can reveal stark differences.

Utah has a low child poverty rate. So when it comes to having a low rate of removal, Utah looks great when entries are compared to the total child population. But when compared to the impoverished child population, Utah’s rate of removal is above the national average.

Similarly, Utah looks very good in Barclay and Carter’s index. But what would happen if you factored in poverty? I suspect that Utah would no longer look as good.

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The family separation metric should be seen as a supplement to other measures, not a substitute. Used that way, it may bring us closer to a true picture of the elephant that is the child welfare system.

Richard Wexler
The Imprint